Monday, March 01, 2010

Facing Rejection

It's finally happened. I managed to get two pieces places in the upcoming anthology, Wait a Minute, I Have to Take Off My Bra, about all things breast-related. That would be women's breasts and not man breasts, which is a whole different subject.

I had heard tentatively about this last year, but didn't hear anything more, despite being told contracts would be sent to writers in January. Being the worrywart I am, I naturally decided to contact the publisher and ask if the two stories under consideration had failed to make the grade. I was told the announcement was coming, but it felt more like being told "The check's in the mail" rather than "You're in and you worry too much." When it comes to being published, I admit I'm still a little nervous and my first thought is that I've been rejected. I have so much experience with rejection and will probably never get over the years and years of collecting rejections. It's ingrained; maybe it's also genetic. It's certainly a learned behavior, one that was pounded, seared, scarred and force fed from my earliest memories.

Always out of step, I was the child most likely to be told, "No, you can't have/do/be that." And I was, a lot. Most of the time I was told I couldn't do something and to stop asking because I was a girl, and yet I still wanted to climb trees, run races, play with swords, carry machetes, tramp barefoot through the jungle with the boys, play first base, ride down zip lines and hang out with Green to make me a boy so that Berets getting their physical and jungle training on base. Every night I prayed for God to make me a boy so I could do what I wanted to do without constantly being told it wasn't appropriate for a girl or that girl's shouldn't even want to do thing like that. I was stubborn--still am--and I was determined to go my own way, even if I had to sneak around to do it, but it was easier when I was a child because my parents didn't worry about where I was. I was outside playing, usually two miles or more away at the main base climbing the jump tower and cadging Green Berets to lift me up so I could cross the bars in the training grid. I was fearless and took every opportunity for adventure.

Too young to get a license for life saving at the base pool, I talked them into allowing me to take the classes and the exam even if I couldn't wear the badge. One of the final trials was jumping from the high platform and swimming the length of the pool. I was only nine years old, but I did a swan dive from the high platform, swam the length of the pool and earned the grudging smile and respect of the head lifeguard. I dreamt of diving from the cliffs at Acapulco when I was old enough to try out for the Olympics in the high dive and the head lifeguard did his best to convince my parents that I was Olympic high diving material. And then the words came, "No, she's a girl. She can't do that." I didn't dare reveal the big secret, that I was writing a book about a girl lost in the jungle who discovers an ancient abandoned city. I was too afraid that dream would dissolve with the same words, "No, you can't do that because you're a girl." Instead, I kept writing in secret, glowing with pride whenever one of my papers was singled out for praise and I won a certificate of merit or an award. Awards, it seemed, were gender neutral, and treated with respect.

When I finally told my parents I wanted to go to college and be a writer, the same old words crashed into my dreams. "No, you're a girl. Your brother will have to support a family." It didn't matter that he was five years younger and six years behind me in school. All that mattered was that I was a girl and therefore not worthy of such an expenditure. "Stop dreaming. Learn something useful. You can't make a living as a writer." Even though the words weren't said, I still heard them, "No, you can't; you're a girl."

My world narrowed further and further until it was apparent the only way I'd be able to do what I wanted was to turn eighteen, graduate high school and get out on my own. I'd get no help from my parents who had done their duty by raising me that far. After I graduated, I was someone else's responsibility, some man who would take care of me, support me, and put up with my strange and inappropriate ideas. My mother told me to accept the first man who asked because I wasn't likely to get another offer . . . probably because I wasn't the right kind of girl, the kind of girl who is quiet and does what she's told and doesn't think she can do anything and everything she wants.

The thing about that kind of rejection is that it stays with you.

It took a very long time before I decided to stop wanting and start getting. I started writing and submitting my work. I knew it wasn't perfect, but I thought it was good. Editors sent rejections almost before the submissions went out, but some editors took the time to say I had something special and to keep trying. Rejection is a hard thing to overcome, even when it comes with personal letters and encouragement buried among the criticism. It's so much easier to see the rejection than to realize someone has just offered a hand up.

In spite of all the rejections, I kept at it, landing jobs to ghostwrite and edit and finally to sell articles, articles that turned into syndicated pieces and syndicated pieces that led to more articles and more clips and more publications, until, finally, in the wake of my father's death three years ago today, I broke through and several submissions to anthology markets were accepted. I could do this and it didn't matter that I was a girl because for all the editors knew from my byline I was a guy. I smiled every time a letter came with the greeting, "Dear Mr. Cornwell." I responded professionally and signed my contracts, "Ms. J. M. Cornwell." Subtle but effective. As long as they accepted a male, I didn't think they'd rescind the contract when they found out the "J" in my name stood for Jackie and not James or John.

The rejections keep coming even though I've had some minor success and I do not doubt that my first thought when I don't hear promptly from a publisher or reviewer is that the answer is "rejected." Some small part of me at the very hard core of my mind still fights and struggles and believes that it doesn't matter whether I'm male or female when it comes right down to it. There are women competing in the Olympics in the high dive, soaring gracefully from the cliffs at Acapulco and arrowing into the swirling waters just beyond the dangerous rocks hugging the base of those same cliffs. There are women among the tall, stalwart men of the Green Beret and women who have won Pulitzers and sit atop the best sellers lists. No doubt someone told them they couldn't have their dream because they were girls, but they ignored the rejections and found a way.

It's a small victory to be included in this particular anthology, not only as a writer but as a woman. I am uniquely fitted for this one because I know whereof I speak. Man breasts aside, only a woman truly understands the agony and the ecstasy of a physical feature that comes in all sizes and shapes and defines us by its presence or absence. After all, we have one thing in common; we are women writers who have faced the possibility of rejection and won.

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